Almost a year has passed since the High Court of Justice annulled the decisions of the Israel Lands Administration that would have granted farmers large sums in return for their agreement to rezone farmland.
The court's move was in response to a petition submitted by the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow advocacy group. At the time, it seemed like a development that would make possible the formulation of a new policy based on social justice, which would deny financial benefits to one sector and facilitate planning that would preserve open areas and agricultural land.
However, the ILA and the farm lobby did not allow the court decisions to change the operative direction to which they had become accustomed.
Tomorrow, a series of proposals is to be submitted to the ILA Council; if approved, the proposals will grant generous building rights to farmers and make possible the continued existence of the mechanism that encourages the rezoning of farmland in return for financial compensation. These proposals were sent hastily to the relevant government ministries and were not subjected to any prior public discussion, even though they constitute a far-reaching agrarian reform.
Also being submitted to the council are the recommendations of a commission headed by former justice minister Moshe Nissim. The commission's role was to discuss all the transactions that the High Court said had to be examined. It was to decide whether they were still subject to the decisions that the court annulled, because they were already in various stages of implementation when the court handed down its ruling.
The Nissim Commission is proposing the approval of a large number of transactions that will make it possible to grant financial compensation for rezoning farmland, as in the past. For example, it stipulated that one of the decisions the court revoked would nevertheless apply to farmers or entrepreneurs who began to work, with the knowledge and agreement of the ILA, to implement a decision on land rezoning. The planning institutions will face heavy pressure to approve such transactions.
However, the Nissim Commission recommendations are only the beginning. In addition, the council will tomorrow consider two motions for the agenda. One has to do with setting residential rights in patrimonies in farming communities, while the other has to do with rezoning farmland. The motions make no distinction between communities of different types. They state that a residential lot will consist of 2.5 dunams (four dunams equals one acre) on which rights can be obtained that will make it possible to erect three residential units and various structures (not necessarily of an agricultural character) of up to 500 square meters.
In conjunction with rezoning, farmers will also be able to get additional compensation above the basic amount for the value of the farmland. The ILA is also continuing to undermine national planning policy by defining land rezoning in the draft resolution in such a way as to make it possible for rezoning to begin at private initiative, even before the initiative is presented to the planning institutions.
The net result is that agricultural communities are becoming vast real estate reservoirs that are making possible extensive construction and encouraging rezoning, even if this is not consistent with general planning aims. A case in point is National Master Plan 35, which has yet to be given final approval, but in which the emphasis is on strengthening urban areas and reducing land-attached residential building in rural areas.
One concern is that commerce will develop with regard to the thousands of residential units and structures that it will be possible to build in agricultural communities and that some of the communities will also be able to promote rezoning of thousands of dunams outside their boundaries on the basis of the Nissim Commission recommendations. It will also be possible to promote rezoning processes in places to which the Nissim Commission recommendations do not apply, in the expectation of getting heightened compensation.
The social consequences will take the form of discrimination against people who live in urban areas - they will not receive equal compensation from the state - and will be a hard blow for the big cities, which will again find themselves competing unsuccessfully against employment and residential centers in rural areas.
It is not surprising that representatives of the urban sector, such as Kfar Sava Mayor Yitzhak Wald, have been sharply critical of the new initiatives. "This is the continuation of the aim of representatives of the rural sector to annul National Master Plan 35," Wald says. "We are talking about one-tenth of the population of Israel, which is imposing future planning on the other 90 percent."
From the environmental point of view, the two proposals will bring about the continuation of the destructive developments we have seen in recent years, especially the acceleration of suburbanization, which places a burden on infrastructures and leads to the disappearance of open areas. The multiplicity of non-farming business that will become possible in the wake of the decisions will further exacerbate the environmental hazards that such businesses are already creating.
Social and environmental advocacy groups agree it is necessary to guarantee the rights of farmers to their existing home and their right to work the land. Most of these groups also support subsidization of farmers in order to promote the preservation of farmland, and they are in favor of granting compensation equivalent to the worth of the farmland in case of rezoning.
These principles should be adopted as the basis for advancing an agricultural policy that will take into account the rights of those who settled the land, as well as promote social justice and environmental quality.
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